ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Before he became governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson burnished a reputation as a diplomatic troubleshooter, having negotiated the freedom of Americans in North Korea, Iraq, Sudan and elsewhere with a mixture of tenacity and charm.
The former U.N. ambassador and energy secretary in the Clinton administration has a knack for winning the trust of negotiating partners. Richardson, a 55-year-old Democrat, has said he has a cardinal rule in dealing with a foreign adversary: Always show respect.
Experts say Richardson's diplomatic experience is probably behind North Korea's decision to select him as an intermediary between it and the United States. The Bush administration wants North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program.
"I think you can assume the reason they've selected Gov. Richardson as the person they want to talk to is precisely because they are familiar with him from his time at the U.N.," said William LeoGrande, dean of the school of public affairs at American University in Washington.
"He must have struck them as being serious and open-minded and willing to hear their side of the issue."
Richardson met with Han Song Ryol, deputy North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, and First Secretary Mun Jong Chol for about two hours Thursday night at the governor's mansion in Santa Fe. The governor said he planned a second meeting Friday.
North Korea re-emerged as a nuclear threat last month when it expelled U.N. monitors and took steps to reactivate nuclear facilities that had been mothballed under a 1994 deal with the United States.
In 1994, Richardson, then a congressman, helped arrange the freedom of a U.S. soldier whose helicopter had strayed into North Korea.
Then, in 1996, he helped secure the release of an American detained in the North on spy charges.
Less than two weeks later, Richardson was in Sudan, where he spent five hours under a mango tree negotiating the freedom of three Red Cross workers, including one American.
Sudanese rebels had demanded $100 million ransom for the Red Cross workers. Richardson talked them down to five tons of rice, four Jeeps, nine radios and a survey of regional health conditions.
On one mission to North Korea, Pyongyang officials implored him to stay an extra day to fill them in on official thinking in Washington. He declined.
In 1995, Richardson negotiated the release of two Americans held by Iraq. He also won freedom for an American woman facing life in a prison in Bangladesh. In early 1996, he persuaded Cuban President Fidel Castro to set free three political prisoners.
He used his negotiating background in his campaign for governor last year. In one television ad, he was shown shaking hands with Saddam Hussein.
"I represented our country in the United Nations. I resolved some disputes among countries. I dealt with Saddam Hussein in Iraq," he said during the campaign.
The North Koreans' choice of Richardson may also be an indication of their feelings about President Bush's policies, LeoGrande said.
"They may think the Bush administration is closed-minded about the issue,"' LeoGrande said.